Before moving to Manhattan in 1999, Sahra Motalebi studied singing, painting, art history, and architecture at Sarah Lawrence College. Seeking an art form that incorporated all of her various interests, Motalebi emerged as an early figure in the blurring of boundaries between performance, music, technology, and visual art.
At first, no one quite knew what to make of her. “I studied classical music pretty seriously,” says the 38-year-old native of Birmingham, Alabama. “But I wasn’t well-behaved enough to pursue a career in the classical music world. Nor did I want to. What led me to interdisciplinary thinking was a wish to create an experience engaging all of the senses.”
Motalebi’s latest project, Directory of Portrayals (from Rendering What Remains), is an “open-form” opera that is written by, directed by, and starring the artist. Hinging on multiple, ever-changing versions of the same performance—she’s staged three to date—the piece’s loose structure allows it to evolve over time right alongside the still-unfolding autobiographical narrative that inspired it: Motalebi’s online relationship with her younger half-sister, a conservative Muslim English teacher living in Iran, whom she has never actually met.
For two nights in December, at the Kitchen in New York, Motalebi will stage the production’s fourth iteration. This time, she is playing herself, her half-sister, an interrupting stage director, and the opera’s chorus. Through prose, poetry, and song, the story explores the two sisters’ daily lives and beliefs, and their social media exchanges. “Whereas opera has always brought together the visual, the architectural, the musical, and the textual,” says Motalebi, “with this onslaught of virtual life, the form can have a new meaning, where you’re really forced to step inside of a performance.”
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